By Frances Moore Lappé
Growing up in the 1950s was no picnic. Actually, I hated it the racism, the sexism, the anti-intellectualism.... Yet one particular, warm memory lingers.
I'm at home, in
. I’m lying in my bedroom, down a short hallway from the kitchen. The door is ajar and intense conversation and laughter flow in, along with the smell of fresh coffee percolating. Around our yellow Formica table, my parents and their friends are hashing out what matters most to them how to racially integrate the church they as lay people were helping to found, whether to sponsor a Hungarian refugee family after the Soviet crackdown, and what stands they should take on nuclear armament. I can’t follow most of their chatter. All I know is that they are doing what grown-ups do: They are talking about the “big, important things,” and that’s what I want to do when I grow up.
Now over fifty years later, as I read Shay Salomon’s moving book, I realize that my powerful childhood experience was possible because of something I’d never before credited: the scale of our modest, wood home. If my family had lived in one of the new “ranch houses” just beginning to be built on the outskirts of town, I would not have heard the “hum from the kitchen,” a memory that has shaped me over a lifetime.
Today Americans assume living in a bigger personal space to be evidence of progress, but I know in my bones that growing up sharing with my family our one bathroom, one TV, and one car nurtured a sense of belonging that is my strength today.
Shay’s empowering book helps me to make another connection as well.
To explain, I’ll back up again, though not quite so far: In my mid-twenties I was shaken to discover that I was part of a global food system that transforms abundance into scarcity. Poor people overseas were starving and malnourished, yet the world was producing plenty of grain for everyone to be fed. What, I wondered, was going on?
As our harvests rose, instead of sharing our grain at a reduced price with other countries, North American farmers were feeding the grain to animals, in feedlots. Animals, especially cattle, are inefficient. It takes a lot of grain literally to grow a steer. In fact, if we were to eat directly the 16 pounds of grain that it takes to produce a pound of meat, we would have 8 times as much protein available to us.
And feedlots come with other problems: disease, overuse of antibiotics, groundwater contamination, cruelty to animals…. In a world where millions suffer from hunger, such practices make no sense at all.
So imagine my sense of excitement when as a young woman I realized I could choose something else. I didn’t have to remain a victim of a scarcity-making system. I didn’t have to expose myself and farm workers to pesticides. I could choose a diet that was best for the earth and at the same time best for my body. What could be better?
What could be more satisfying than realizing that my daily food choices my most intimate tie to the nurturing earth could, instead of reinforcing waste and pollution, be sending out ripples of sanity and health?
What if my choices about my personal dwelling space could likewise send out ripples of sanity and health? Isn’t this just what Shay is telling me? Just as hunger isn’t caused by scarcity of food, homelessness and our “housing crisis” aren’t caused by a lack of houses.
The Union of Concerned Scientist ranks housing third among destructive human enterprises, just after transportation and agriculture. But our housing need not be a destructive. Again, we can choose! We can choose human scale, enhancing our connection with those we love. We can choose eco-scale, reducing our demand for the kind of energy that is disrupting life now and for future generations. And we can choose econo-scale, freeing up our time, directing it away from our mortgage and toward our dreams.
I’ve come to believe that to pull back from planetary eco-cide, and from the accompanying misery of isolation and meaninglessness, requires of us precisely the rethinking to which this book calls us. To revitalize ourselves, our communities, our homes, and our planet is not a question of sacrifice. It’s a question of listening within ourselves to discover what really makes us happy. It’s about finding our power.